Why would a Hollywood mogul who produced films such as “Frankenstein” and “Dracula” become involved in bringing German Jewish refugees to the United States in the 1930s?
Because Carl Laemmle understood, earlier and more clearly than most Americans, that Adolf Hitler and the Nazis were preparing to carry out an all-out war against the Jews. On this week’s 80th anniversary of Laemmle’s passing, his little-known efforts to help Jewish refugees are worth recalling.
Laemmle immigrated to the United States from the German town of Laupheim in 1884. He was the founder, in 1912, of Universal Pictures, the studio responsible for such blockbuster films as “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” as well as the aforementioned horror classics.
Laemmle experienced the Nazi menace even before Adolf Hitler rose to power. The Berlin premiere of “All Quiet on the Western Front,” in December 1930, was violently disrupted by a Nazi mob led by future propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. They claimed the film’s account of World War I made Germany look bad.
Laemmle repeatedly sought to raise the alarm about the dangers of Nazism. In January 1932 – more than a year before Hitler became chancellor of Germany – Laemmle outlined his fears in a letter to newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, who had published occasional columns by Hitler.
“I am almost certain that Hitler’s rise to power, because of his obvious militant attitude toward the Jews, would be the signal for a general physical onslaught on many thousands of defenseless Jewish men, women, and children in Germany, and possibly in Central Europe, as well,” Laemmle warned.
Soon after the Nazis came to power, a street that had been named after Laemmle in his hometown of Laupheim was renamed Hitler Street. Soon after that, Universal closed its offices in Germany.
Government-sponsored anti-Semitism became the norm in Hitler’s Germany. German Jews looked desperately for countries that would admit them. But most doors were closed.
America’s immigration system had operated since the 1920s according to restrictive quotas. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his administration took that harsh system and made it worse, by adding layers of bureaucracy and burdensome extra requirements in order to discourage and disqualify potential immigrants. Prof. David S. Wyman called them “paper walls.”
As a result, America’s quota for immigrants from Germany – approximately 26,000 yearly during the 1930s – was almost never filled. Some 190,000 quota places from Germany (and, later, Axis-occupied countries) sat unused during FDR’s twelve years in office. And in most of those years, the German quota was less than one-fourth filled.
One of the devices the Roosevelt administration used to obstruct immigration involved financial guarantees. The law required a would-be immigrant to find an American citizen who would pledge to financially support him in the event he could not support himself.
The law did not specify how much money the guarantor needed to have in the bank, nor any other details about the guarantor. So US officials made up those rules as they went along – which is what happened to Laemmle.
Laemmle served as the financial guarantor for more than 300 Jews, many from Laupheim, to come to the United States. Some of them were his relatives; most were not.
By the spring of 1938, US officials stepped in to block Laemmle’s rescue initiative. The American consul general in Stuttgart informed Laemmle that his guarantees would no longer be accepted. In an appeal to Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Laemmle reported the reason that was given for preventing his further involvement: “I am past 71 years of age and I might not live much longer.”
There was nothing in the law that specified such an age limit. Moreover, the officials could have asked younger members of Laemmle’s family to co-sign, or had him pledge a portion of his estate as the guarantee. But the administration was determined to suppress Jewish refugee immigration below the quotas, and this was one more way to do it. Secretary Hull ignored Laemmle’s appeal.
Laemmle’s efforts were not limited to Jews from his hometown. He corralled numerous friends and colleagues in Hollywood into becoming financial guarantors for German Jewish immigrants, whatever their cities of origin.
“I predict right now that thousands of German and Austrian Jews will be forced to commit suicide if they cannot get affidavits to come to America or some other foreign country,” Laemmle presciently warned. There were waves of suicides by Jews in Vienna after Germany annexed Austria in 1938. In one case, 22 members of a single family took their own lives.
When the refugee ship St. Louis, carrying some 900 German Jewish refugees, approached America’s shore in June 1939, Laemmle sent a telegram to President Roosevelt, begging him to intervene on their behalf. FDR didn’t respond. The ship was forced to return to Europe, and many of its passengers were later murdered by the Nazis.
The history of America’s response to the Holocaust is largely one of abandonment and indifference. But there were also individuals with a conscience, such as Carl Laemmle, who refused to abandon the Jews. Their efforts deserve recognition.
Sadly, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, DC, does not mention Laemmle in its new exhibit on “Americans and the Holocaust.” When we expressed our concerns to the museum’s leadership, we were told there was “not enough room” in the 5,000-square-foot exhibit. There was not enough room for even one sentence about an American who helped save the lives of hundreds of German Jews on the eve of the Holocaust? We hope the Museum will reconsider.
Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, in Washington, DC. Sandy Einstein, formerly a publicist for the rock band Journey, is the son of a Jewish refugee saved by Carl Laemmle.